Guyanese author E. R. Braithwaite, who wrote the autobiographical novel ‘To Sir, With Love’ dies at 104 on 12 December 2016.
‘To Sir, With Love’ of his time teaching in London’s East End in the 1950s was adapted into the 1967 movie of the same name, starring Sidney Poitier.
Eustace Edward Ricardo Braithwaite (1912-2016) had taught English at Howard University, in Washington, and lived in the area for many years. He was also a diplomat and former Royal Air Force pilot. He represented Guyana at the United Nations.
He wrote several books, many about racism in countries like South Africa and the United States, where he lived much of his life. But he is best known for ‘To Sir, With Love’ (1959). The book chronicled his efforts (although the character was called Mr. Thackeray) — as a Cambridge-educated military veteran who had been denied employment as an engineer because he was black — to motivate a group of unruly adolescents raised in a slum in early-1950s Britain, which was still recovering from the austerity of the war years. Slowly he gains their trust by showing respect and affection, which, for most of the students, have been in short supply. ‘To Sir, With Love’ was timely, at a time of migration from the West Indies and South Asia began to transform British society, and as Americans were grappling with segregation.
Braithwaite studied at Queen’s College, Guyana, and at the City College of New York. He moved to Britain after working at an oil refinery in Aruba, off the coast of Venezuela. In 1940 he volunteered for service in the Royal Air Force. Braithwaite received a master’s degree in physics from Cambridge University in 1949. After leaving his teaching job, he worked with Caribbean immigrant families in London, the basis for his second book ‘Paid Servant: A Report about Welfare Work in London (1962).
Braithwaite’s other books include ‘A Kind of Homecoming’ (1962), Choice of Straws (1965), ‘Reluctant Neighbors’ (1972), and ‘Honorary White: A Visit to South Africa’ (1975).
From 1960-1963 he was a human-rights officer at the World Veterans Federation, based in Paris. From 1963-1966 he was a lecturer and education consultant at UNESCO in Paris. From 1967-1969 he served as the first permanent representative of Guyana to the United Nations. He was later the country’s ambassador to Venezuela.
E.R. Braithwaite did not stay in touch with his London students, but was often asked about them. “I don’t know if I changed any lives or not,’’ he said in a 2013 interview. “But something did happen between them and me, which was quite gratifying.”
Photograph: E.R. Braithwaite (top) by joy105.com